19TH AMENDMENT PLAYTHING OF THE UNP
The 19th amendment is a remarkable piece of legislation. For all the wrong reasons, one must add. The authors were first rapped on their metaphorical knuckles by the Supreme Court which determined that sections of the draft were unconstitutional and would require two-thirds support in Parliament plus endorsement through a referendum in order to hold. Interestingly, the Supreme Court probably drew from a determination it had delivered way back in 2002 in a case filed by Wickramaratne himself, where he pleaded that the President’s powers to dissolve Parliament cannot be taken away by Parliament. When the 19th was tabled in Parliament, a dissolving clause was included, probably in view of the SC determination. That was the genesis of the confusion. In essence, then, the SC revoked an earlier decision when it determined that President Maithripala Sirisena did not have the power to dissolve Parliament, rendering the dissolution article meaningless.
We have to conclude that the 19th was a piece of legislation that was written and voted for by sophomoric lawmakers. Wait, there’s another explanation: it was a deliberate exercise in constitutional tinkering for partisan reasons; in other words for the benefit of the UNP!
Some basic questions would put the matter to rest. First of all, why couldn’t the likes of Wickramaratne and Sumanthiran come up with a draft that was ambiguity-free with regard to dissolution? Secondly, why did they offer a vague definition of ‘national government’ that made it possible for people like Wickramaratne to come up with the absurd claim that a UNP+SLMC arrangement would fulfill ‘national government’ criteria? Thirdly, why did they make a mockery of ‘independence’ when legislating the composition of the politician-heavy Constitutional Council?
It is against all this that we need to examine the current dola-duka of the UNP government regarding increasing cabinet-size. Clearly, that party doesn’t give two hoots about promises made to the electorate. That’s not surprising since one of the key leaders of the UNP, Mangala Samarasinghe, once brushed aside manifestos as being irrelevant once elections are done. This is obviously not something that is important to the sad bunch of pro-democracy activists who came out of the woodworks recently when it appeared that Sirisena had well and truly trumped Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP.
Why 32? What’s this fascination with increasing cabinet-size? Who does Wickremesinghe want to pencil in? What checks are being submitted by whom for what kind of services rendered, are we permitted to ask?
The composition of the Cabinet itself is a damning indictment on the Prime Minister and his government. Starting from the top, we have Wickremesinghe, who is close to 70 years of age, as Minister of Youth Affairs. We have a ministry for ‘Kandy Development’ which begs the question, ‘doesn’t the logic require ministries for every major city in the country?’ Ravi Karunanayake, who is either the man at the centre of the Central Bank bond scam or at best a front man for Wickremesinghe, has a portfolio — need we say more? We could say more. Rishad Bathiudeen, accused of illegal and communalist settlement exercises is the Minister of Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons. There’s a ministry for ‘Dry Zone Development’. Why not ministries for the development of other climatic zones? Malik Samarawickrema didn’t want a ministry, but he got one.
To be fair, Wickremesinghe has not done any worse than his predecessors, dating back to J.R. Jayewardena’s time. Then again, the UNP in its good governance avatar was supposed to do things differently. Cannot? Will not? Will not, obviously!
As things stand, then, we can safely conclude that the democratic credentials of the UNP are toilet wash. We can conclude that not only was the 19th Amendment a careless piece of legislation that’s marked by multiple flaws, the ‘errors’ were deliberate and designed to favor the UNP.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, what we see is the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe stretching or contracting the 19th Amendment in accordance with their political needs. Those who operate in this way do not deserve to be protected and those who have and continue to protect them (in the name of democracy) have to be considered accessories after the fact of constitutional tinkering, crass political expedience of an anti-democratic political formation and twisting of mandates for partisan reasons.
Yes, the 19th Amendment is a remarkable piece of legislation and one that should be studied carefully by students of politics, law and constitutional reform. In terms of process and product, it stands out as an excellent example of how not to write laws.
by MALINDA SENAVIRATNE